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Flash Review 1, 2-20: Merce, Encountered
Feting the 50th on the Coast

By Aimee Ts’ao
Copyright 2003 Aimee Ts’ao

BERKELEY -- For months, I had been ruminating over how I would write about the Merce Cunningham Dance Company's 50th anniversary season at Berkeley's Zellerbach Hall in the beginning of February. A few days before the company opened here, the New Yorker magazine ran an article, "Dancing in the City" by Alma Guillermoprieto, which captured the life of a young dancer in New York City in the late sixties with anecdotes about Merce and Twyla Tharp. While the details of my own experiences in the same time and place were significantly different, the essence was not and I felt I needed to change the direction and shape that my article had begun to take. When I read all the pieces in my press kit, I decided I absolutely needed to find another un-autobiographical angle. I didn't want to seem to be following the crowd. But then Paul Ben-Itzak reminded me that all of the Dance Insider's readers won't have read all the other articles and I decided to forge ahead with bits of my own life vis-a-vis Merce, John Cage, and the rest as sometimes no other means of explanation is as precise, and also by way of revealing the origin of my differences in perception.

I grew up in Ann Arbor, where the University of Michigan attracted many artistic types. In 1959 my parents rented a house to Robert Ashley, then an obscure electronic music composer. As a result of the ensuing friendship between landlord and tenant, I was frequently taken along to all manner of concerts, happenings, light shows and multi-media events sponsored by the ONCE Group, a collection of avant-garde composers, musicians, visual artists, film makers and performers. As a young teenager I remember seeing Alex Hay, Deborah Hay and Steve Paxton dance on the roof of a municipal parking garage. And since I also studied ballet, attended performances of many assorted dance companies on tour, went to hear live classical music and lingered in art museums, I had a well-rounded arts education. The key here is that at the time I was unaware that I was being exposed to a much wider slice of the arts pie than most of my peers, or other adults who are knowledgeable about culture. It was all art to me. Historical perspective wouldn't arrive until years later.

The first time I saw the Merce Cunningham Dance Company perform was in New York City, where I lived from 1967 to 1970. Gordon Mumma, a family friend from Ann Arbor, also of the ONCE Group, had joined MCDC as a musician and he often invited me to see the company and also set about introducing me to the work of other avant-garde performers.

Fast forward 33 years to the current 50th anniversary season of the company. I am going to see two evenings of repertory, including the American premiere of "Fluid Canvas" (see Josephine Leask's review) and four films of dance on camera by Cunningham, Charles Atlas and Elliot Caplan. I am battling a strong feeling of ambivalence, which will be explained as I delve into the history of this dance troupe. And like most people I know right now, I am depressed by the state of the world. Decidedly not the best state of mind to be objective, discriminating and analytical..

The Pacific Film Archive and Cal Performances are jointly presenting the films: "Story" (1964) shot in Helsinki during a performance, then "Coast Zone" (1983), "Beach Birds for Camera" (1993) and "Melange" (2001) all made as films using dance and not just documenting choreography. Merce slowly walks to the podium with the help of a cane and the shoulder of an assistant. It is painful to see his body so crippled by arthritis. I remember him moving with such fleetness and intricacy, so idiosyncratically delightful that he could make my evening during an otherwise less than exciting performance by the rest of the company. Yet he is so present, and mentally concise and focused, that I am somewhat consoled. He speaks softly, gently, explaining that to be on tour in Berkeley is not performing just anywhere, but "to meet again with friends". He speaks of his work with film and I think back to a time when I wrote him a letter. I had just gotten back from a summer dance tour in France and had a dream that I was riding in a van through the French countryside with Merce at the wheel. When I woke up I wondered if I should write Merce, since I didn't really know him and it seemed like a presumptuous idea. To make the decision, I did the Cunninghamian thing and threw the I-Ching. It said yes. So I wrote him about dreaming I was on tour with his company and asked him what he was doing these days. I was more than surprised when I received a reply. He said he was learning to use a video camera because it seemed easier for him to do that so he could get the shots he wanted than it would be to train a cameraman to dance. I come back to the present moment and he explains the differences between dance for stage and dance for camera. With stage the audience has a fixed point of observation and the front of the stage appears wider while the back appears to narrow. With the camera, one's point of view can move constantly at varying speeds or stay still and what is closer is in a narrower field, and farther away objects or dancers have a much broader field. He says that in film, as a choreographer, you cannot repeat phrases of movement too many times because for some reason the viewer tends to remember the sequences better.

"Story" is not of very high visual quality, very grainy and slightly blurry. However, despite that faces are indistinct, I find I can recognize dancers by their individual movement inflections. Carolyn Brown, Viola Farber, Valda Setterfield, Barbara Lloyd (now Barbara Dilley), Sandra Neels, and Merce himself, all have their own unique unmistakable body language. Suddenly I remember why I had loved this company so much in the late sixties and early seventies. The dancers imbued the movement with their own personal expression, and by that I don't mean they tried to express something external, an idea or an emotion, but rather that they executed the same movements in their own different voices. David Vaughan, MCDC archivist for over forty years, provides commentary as well and relates that Robert Rauschenberg, who created a new set with found objects at each performance, also provided costumes which consisted of duffel bags of clothes in the wings that the dancers could don or remove according to whim. In Tokyo, Barbara Lloyd put them all on and appeared as a giant moving bundle of fabric.

The last dance film that Cunningham made with Charles Atlas is "Coast Zone." Though I sometimes weary of the dancers' delivery (Louise Burns excepted, as she still has that individuality I mentioned before), the movement of the camera is mesmerizing. It's as if it is a dancer itself the way it passes dancers moving in the opposite direction, or rushes toward a body or circles a group of dancers. As with "Story," I see more and more clearly how very balletic Cunningham's choreography is. Certainly not in the port de bras, but most of the lower body vocabulary consists of arabesques, attitudes, extensions to the front and side -- not turned in, a la Graham, but fully rotated outward -- tendus, promenades and grand jetes. It is simply elegant in its purity.

"Beach Birds for Camera" is in two parts. The first is in black and white, gorgeously backlit by a wall of small-pane windows that creates an ambience of the lightness and openness of being outdoors. The second part is in color in a studio without visible windows, and in contrast seems closed in. Oddly, Cunningham uses small circles of dancers that remind me of the white acts of "Swan Lake," and a moment of quivering feet like Odette in the pas de deux. I suppose that he and Petipa had observed some of the same traits of birds in groups. The costumes, unitards with white legs extending to below the bust and black bodices with arms covering the hands, evoke an avian quality without being species specific. The highlight for me is a very long section where a man stands in arabesque facing straight into the camera, his face to the floor, undulating his arms, and moving them together in front of his chest and back out, like a bird in flight, soaring then slowly, strongly propelling himself with his wings.

The six minute "Melange" is just that, a real mixed bag of outdoor footage, in the studio, lots of different costumes and atmospheres. To see the four films, spanning nearly 40 years, gives an instant perspective of what changes and what remains the same in Cunningham's work. The costumes and lighting reflect the changing aesthetics and fashions of the times, while the choreography itself grows more complex. His underlying philosophies, that dance is just the movement and the disconnect between dance and music, are still evident. Personally, I like the older simpler pieces. I remember seeing Jon Neumeier's "Swan Lake." The second act, the original Petipa version, is done as a private performance for the Prince. The stark contrast between Neumeier's choreography for the first act and the classical purity and simplicity of the Petipa made me love and appreciate the "less is more" approach. With Cunningham's work I feel the same way.

The next night, Friday, I see live performances. "Suite for Five" (1956-58) to John Cage's "Music for Piano" played by Christian Wolff, with costumes by Rauschenberg and light by Josh Johnson, opens the program. I am struck again but the balletic quality and the simplicity. Holly Farmer and Ashley Chen do an exquisite pas de deux and together with Jennifer Goggins restore my faith that the company again has dancers who make the movement their own, like 35 years ago. Sitting in the dark watching this non-narrative, abstract piece gives me a respite from the highly charged and overly complicated world outside.

"MinEvent" with the Kronos Quartet is the big draw and the house is nearly full. Using "Thirty pieces for String Quartet" (1983) written for the Kronos Quartet by Cage, and decor by Rauschenberg for "Immerse" (1994), Cunningham has put together a smaller version of one of his Events, which are combinations of various elements -- choreography, music and decor -- that are specifically assembled for a specific time and place. In this case, the choreography comes from new material, "Ocean," "Installations," an American Express "Event," and "Scenario." The Kronos players are seated one each downstage right and left and also on each side of the grand tier. It whole thing doesn't quite gel and I try to enjoy the separate elements. I am intrigued by some of the dancers, particularly Mandy Kirschner, Koji Mizuta and Derry Swan in addition to Farmer, Chen and Goggins from the first piece.

Jean Freebury and members of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company in Cunningham's "Fluid Canvas." Tony Dougherty photo courtesy Cal Performances.

The evening closes with the U.S. premiere of "Fluid Canvas" (see Josephine Leask's review of the world premiere). I find myself distracted by John King's "longtermpiano" as it loudly moves around the space thanks to "surround sound" and realize I am missing the dancing while focusing on "Lifelike" the background computer-generated motion capture projections created Marc Downie, Shelley Eshkar and Paul Kaiser. Fortunately, the next night I see this piece again (though given the nature of Cunningham's work using chance procedures, it is a different piece), and the novelty of the background and music have worn off enough that I concentrate closely on the dancing.

Saturday I run into Gordon Mumma in the lobby. I haven't seen him a couple of years and we catch up on each other's news before we start reminiscing about the company and old times. I say that in "Suite for Five" you can tell which roles were originally danced by Carolyn Brown (one of my personal idols and role models) and Merce by the shape of the choreography. He adds that there aren't too many people any more who have been around long enough and are familiar enough with the first generation dancers to notice. The program consists of two old works and "Fluid Canvas." "Pictures"(1984), to David Behrman's "Interspecies Small Talk" with decor and costumes by Mark Lancaster and lighting by Josh Johnson, soothes me in the same way that "Suite for Five" did the previous night. The best ending for this season is "How to Pass, Kick, Fall and Run" (1965). With Merce himself and David Vaughan reading stories from John Cage's "Silence," "A Year from Monday" and elsewhere, I recall Cage's own reading with Vaughan. Merce displays his quirky yet impeccable timing and the dancers continue to delight me. I am grateful for this development as I spent all those intervening years being continually disappointed. Though the dancers executed the steps technically well, they somehow had misinterpreted the idea of dance without emotion to mean dance without nuance. Merce had always practiced what he preached and it's good to see that even though he is no longer dancing, dancers in the company are now running with the baton he has passed on.

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